Depression: Lifting the stigma

Monica standing with umbrella

In September 1996, Monica Shea, a Biogen employee, was working in her U.S. Navy squadron when she received a call from her mother with terrible news: her father had taken his own life. Heartbroken and shocked she made arrangements to fly home. Her father’s note provided no answers but was “more of an apology that he had given up,” she said.

Monica’s mother explained that her father had struggled with depression for years, so she wasn’t surprised this happened. “She and my dad divorced when I was a kid, and she said his depression had been a part of that decision. I knew none of this, and I felt guilty that I was in my twenties and completely unaware,” Monica said. 

Looking back, Monica realized that all the signs were there: He always had a difficult time holding a job, wasn't really motivated and seemed apathetic about most things. Her parents’ divorce when she was young also meant that she didn’t see her father as much so was more removed from his struggles. It was only after his death that Monica discovered that several of his family members also suffered from mental illness. “I think it was a sign of the times and sort of that hush hush stigma of mental illness. And people just didn't talk about it, or they ignored it," she said.

In fact, research shows that social and cultural stigma affects an individual’s ability to initially recognize a mental health problem, which can prevent or delay people from seeking help, or starting or continuing treatment.1,2

Lawrence (Larry) Park, M.D., Medical Director, Clinical Development, Neuropsychiatry at Biogen and a practicing psychiatrist, has seen the burden of the stigma associated with depression firsthand in many of his patients. “There’s a fair amount of stigma both in families as well as the patients themselves about having been diagnosed with major depression that's unwarranted and needs to be lifted,” he said.

Lawrence Park, M.D.
Neuropsychiatry Clinical Development at Biogen

Larry explains that people with depression lose interest in the things they once enjoyed and may experience feelings of guilt or worthlessness. “These feelings, when they mount, can lend people to have thoughts of suicidality, and potentially, impulses to act on those thoughts.” Larry also says that depression can run in families. “If you have family members that have depression or if you personally have had episodes of depression in the past, then you're more likely to be depressed again in the future.”

When Monica’s uncle, Patrick, opened up about his struggles with depression, she was hopeful that she could provide him with the support he needed and “prevent history from repeating itself.” She and Patrick were close in age and shared a special bond. “He was very open about it. And I think my dad's death brought us even closer together because of their shared diagnosis. We would talk about it all the time.” However, she remembers feeling frustrated at times and unable to understand why Patrick would get stuck in a bad place. 

“He had a successful career, a beautiful home and a lot of friends, so it was hard for me to understand why he would be so hard on himself. I had to remind myself - I still have to remind myself today - that it was because of his disease,” she said. 

In 2004, because of a bad breakup, Patrick’s depression worsened. In April of that that year, he took his own life.  

Monica, who is now married and a mother of a teenage daughter, recalls being terrified about passing depression on to her own children. She remembers sharing those fears with a manager a few years after her daughter was born. 

“He said, ‘we are all born with something,’ which I found so simple, yet enlightening. And it made me feel better because he made it sound normal, no shame or stigma associated with it at all,” she said.

For Monica, lifting that stigma is one of the reasons she wants to continue sharing her story.

“Sharing my story opens the door for other people to share theirs. I want people to know they shouldn't be embarrassed, nor should people be embarrassed if they have a family member or a friend struggling. And the more we talk about it we are erasing that unnecessary stigma.” 

Monica’s family tragedy is not uncommon. Even less uncommon is the reality of mental illness and depression. 

In 2020, an estimated 21 million adults in the United States reported at least one major depressive episode.3 Worldwide, approximately 280 million people have depression, and it is 50% more common among women.4

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by a massive 25%.5  These staggering statistics, because of an acute point in history, have been catalytic in creating a greater sense of urgency for action. 

To address the growing mental health crisis and human toll, WHO launched QualityRights in 2012, a global initiative to improve the quality of care in mental health, eliminate stigma and promote the rights of people with mental health conditions or psychosocial disabilities.

In April last year the organization launched a QualityRights global online training with the goal of 5 million people having completed the training by the end of 2024. In his opening remarks introducing the training, Dr. Tedros, Director-General of the WHO, said, “The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a heavy toll on the mental health of countless people around the world… and exposed huge gaps in services for mental health around the world. Stigma and discrimination must be replaced with hope, acceptance and inclusion…Because, ultimately, there is no health without mental health.”7

“Stigma and discrimination must be replaced with hope, acceptance and inclusion…Because, ultimately, there is no health without mental health.”

If you're concerned about signs of Major Depressive Disorder or experiencing Major Depressive Episodes, it’s important to talk to your health care provider. If you are having suicidal thoughts, dial 911 or seek emergency care immediately. U.S. residents can also reach the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988.  


Biogen is working to advance innovation in depression.



1. Schomerus G, Stolzenburg S, Freitag S, et al. Stigma as a barrier to recognizing personal mental illness and seeking help: a prospective study among untreated persons with mental illness. Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci. 2019;269(4):469-479.


2. Corrigan PW, Druss BG, Perlick DA. The impact of mental illness stigma on seeking and participating in mental health care. Psychol Sci Public Interest. 2014;15(2):37-70.




3. National Institute of Health, Major Depression, NIMH » Major Depression (


4. World Health Organization, Depressive disorder (depression), Depressive disorder (depression) (


5. World Health Organization, COVID-19 pandemic triggers 25% increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide, COVID-19 pandemic triggers 25% increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide ( 


6. World Health Organization, Transforming services and promoting human rights in mental health and related areas, Transforming services and promoting human rights in mental health and related areas (


7. World Health Organization, Global launch of the WHO QualityRights e-training on mental health,  WHO Director-General's opening remarks at the Global Launch of the WHO QualityRights e-training to advance mental health, eliminate stigma and promote community inclusion  – 12 April 2022